Further Vision

About this time last year 1 wrote an article for this journal entitled ‘Thoughts on the new Further Education (FE) sector’. A year after incorporation, has the Cinderella educational sector arrived at the ball? Its first year has been full of both challenges and opportunities, but it has been exposed to a political, financial and economic climate which has, to say the least, been contradictory and paradoxical.

Many colleges had excellent relationships with their LEAs, while others did not. These variations inevitably caused problems with transitional funding arrangements. However, many colleges now realize how cost-effective and economical some LEA services were, one good example being insurance cover. Colleges are now faced with massive premiums and these extra costs, like so many other additional costs associated with independence, have not been recognized by the Funding Council.

The proposed inspection arrangements have caused extra work with colleges being inspected required to provide a massive amount of information. Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) circulars already indicate the depth of the information required, which will span practically all aspects of the institutions’ work eg. students, staff, estates and finances. To make matters worse, it appears that different organizations – eg. FEFC, HEFC, TECs, regional committees, awarding bodies, the ED and the DFE – request the same information in various forms.No one management information system is yet available that satisfies the FEFC’s requirements and colleges are already struggling to keep abreast of Information Technologies (IT) developments with limited finances.

It is important to remember the wide variations in size and nature of colleges.

The FEFC’s unit cost league table caused a great deal of concern as the methodology used in drawing up the table was flawed and no attempt was made to put the raw values into a context. The way the student full-time equivalents were calculated was questionable and showed massive departures from how LEAs recognized the various modes of attendance and study.

The new funding model, Option E, promises much but it is essential that the relativities of the unit values across programmes of study, and the various modes of delivery, are properly recognized. The recent tariff committee’s recommendations look promising and recognize the need to weight both key programmes of study (eg. science, engineering, practical subjects and hairdressing) and methods of study.

Many colleges, having experienced sustained growth over the past few years, are struggling with accommodation problems. The borrowing consent arrangements introduced by FEFC at very short notice have caused a number of difficulties. Although colleges accept that they must utilize their physical resources more fully by operating over a longer academic year these arrangements possess a great deal of inertia and are very bureaucratic.

###Warring factions.

One major problem for the institutions which operated under the old FE regulations is the teaching staff contracts of employment. The spectre of the Colleges Employers’ Forum (CEF) and NATFHE battling it out is damaging and the continual talk of convergence is a shallow and saddening farce. The management of the most valuable aspect of the sector, namely staff, is too important to be left to two warring factions each with their own apparently immutable agendas.

The sector is required to grow by 25 per cent over three years with 16 per cent more resources. However the political, financial and economic environment still begs some fundamental questions about where the growth is to come from. Many colleges are situated in areas of high post-compulsory school participation and will find it difficult to further increase participation of young people, although they have much to achieve on improving retention. The Secretary of State seemed committed to supporting the expansion of young people in FE but has since announced that schools should further develop their sixth forms and if they do not have a sixth form, to establish one.

Attempts to increase participation of mature students are being made more difficult by recent changes in grants and benefits. Many colleges are involved in

programmes of study under Youth Training and are committed to assist in the realization of the National Targets for Education and Training. This work counts towards the FEFC student targets, except where the local TEC is operating the training credits scheme. 1 fully appreciate the issue of double funding but the drastic change in policy with the introduction of training credits could deter colleges from getting involved or possibly continuing in this important area of work. Similar arguments hold for the programmes of study for adults, namely Training for Work (TfW) and Learning for Work (LfW).

One of the sector’s strengths is the diversity of its institutions: FE, tertiary, specialist and sixth form colleges. However, because of this history there are a number of associations representing different interests, which to date have continued to maintain their autonomy and talk of convergence has come to very little. A fragmented sector means the continuation of the ‘divide and rule’ mentality pursued by our policy and decision makers which is, no doubt, a reflection of the market force philosophy.

It is essential that the Association for Colleges (AoC) takes the initiative and brings about a greater sense of coherence and unity in the sector.

Until now the heterogeneous nature of the sector has not been fully recognized by the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), which seems to want to manage it as if it were a homogenous entity driven by an accountancy mentality with secondary regard to the educational processes. It is essential we all pull together and that the colleges do not allow the extremes of the market force mentality to cause further fragmentation. I prefer the term ‘managed competition’ ie. a sector in which the individual institutions have a clear mission but operated within an overall coherent strategic framework for post-16 education and training .

In spite of all this I am still optimistic about the future of the Furtheer Education (FE) sector. After all, our students are a significant portion of the population and their education and training are a vital investment for the country’s future economic health.

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